James Downey: Why Hollande is the wrong man to lift France out of economic malaise
EVERYBODY loves France, but almost everybody has doubts about the French. About one-third of the doubts have their origins in politics, the other two-thirds in envy.
Lately they have grown more concrete, centring on President Francois Hollande.
In the cafes of Paris, people argue the question who is their worst president ever. Opinion is divided between Mr Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. After only a year in office, Mr Hollande looks the likely winner of this unwanted title.
On Thursday, he made a dramatic attempt to restore his reputation.
He did not choose his time well. France has slipped into a double-dip recession. Unemployment stands at a record 3.2 million. He plans long-needed reforms, which will mean people must work longer and social welfare will be cut, especially for the affluent.
But nobody could have thought, judging by the tone of his press conference on Thursday, that an unpopular leader was on the way to even greater unpopularity.
In a performance that lasted for more than two hours, he declared his intention to do nothing less than "relaunch" Europe. He wants an elected president of Europe, a joint budget, and – yes, you guessed it – tax harmonisation.
This third proposal is the one that for many years has rattled the corridors of power in Ireland. We rightly fear that a unified European taxation regime will mean the loss of our low corporation tax. We will fight to keep it, and demand a high price if we have to give it up.
This is well within the realm of possibility. When the time comes, our chances will depend largely on the skill of our negotiators.
They will have weapons in their armoury. For example, they can link the issue with the recent belated promises by the British and other governments to tackle the question of legal tax avoidance as well as illegal tax evasion.
Both of these are enormous scandals. Tax avoidance has grown into a huge industry in which armies of experts are employed to find more and more ingenious ways to dodge their liabilities. The cost to exchequers everywhere runs into billions.
To reduce it will be a colossal task – if it is ever undertaken. Can we believe the promises of governments to undertake anti-avoidance campaigns? They would have to deploy their own armies of experts, and very likely to engage in expensive litigation with no certainty of success.
As to the question of who will take the lead in the enterprise, I would place my money on the British (another reason to want Britain to stay in the European Union) and not the French president.
On Thursday he made grandiose claims about advances recently achieved. "The eurozone has stabilised. The banking union has been defined. Greece and other countries have been saved."
Dubious though the claims were, it was more startling to hear him accord all the credit to himself. Does he perhaps think himself another Napoleon, not another Sarkozy?
In the real world, Mr Hollande bears very little resemblance to Napoleon.
He was educated at one of the elite schools that train the future chiefs of French government and administration. Since then, his career has essentially been that of a Socialist Party apparatchik.
Rather like the English politicians about whom I wrote last week, he has never had what you or I would call a real job. A politician educated in the School of Hard Knocks would have thought twice before making a string of bombastic statements. Angela Merkel would have known better.
And it was in relation to Chancellor Merkel that Mr Hollande made his most remarkable pronouncement. He said he would meet her before the German general election and agree the next steps towards European integration.
The election will be held on September 22. That does not leave much time to settle a crisis of the present magnitude. Moreover, although Ms Merkel has an approval rating of 68pc (eat your heart out, Enda!) the pollsters think her coalition unlikely to win a Bundestag majority. This kind of thing makes politicians cautious.
Personal relations come into the reckoning, too. By all accounts, those between the two leaders are less than cordial.
Mr Hollande's own Socialist Party recently denounced Ms Merkel for her "selfish intransigence". A lot of people feel like that, but it wasn't clever to say it publicly. Close relations are essential. So is persuasion.
Mr Hollande says that "my duty is to bring Europe out of its lethargy". Napoleon didn't like lethargy either, but he gave Europe something much worse. France, and Ireland, and the European Union, do not need another Napoleon. They need another Talleyrand.